Last year, not long after Barack Obama’s inauguration, reports trickled into the US of an American journalist working in Tehran who had been arrested and detained. The details of what Roxana Saberi was experiencing in Evin prison, Iran’s own version of the Ministry of Love, were not reported. But her name would appear in the headlines a few more times in the next few months. By April she had been sentenced to eight years in prison for espionage. By May, after a significant international outcry, she was released on a two-year suspended sentence for a lesser charge.
It’s hard to think of another possible victim the Iranian regime could have chosen better calculated to elicit the sympathies of the West. Saberi, 33, was raised by a Japanese mother and Iranian father in Fargo and has the poise befitting her status as a former Miss North Dakota. She’s studied at Northwestern and Cambridge, and having learned Farsi, she has written a series of reports for a variety of outlets, including NPR and Fox News, often about the least discussed aspects of Iranian life. (In one report, she described the country’s relatively enlightened handling of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.)
In her new memoir Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran, Saberi details her experiences in Evin prison. You have probably heard of or read more disturbing accounts of torture at the hands of an authoritarian regime. Saberi was not beaten. Her bones were not broken. Other prisoners experienced more obvious forms of torture at Evin prison before and during her time there. But Saberi was subjected instead to what human rights groups now refer to as “white” torture, a series of brutal psychological offenses designed to break victims.
With her new book, and accompanying speaking tour, Saberi has become a spokeswoman for human rights. Her schedule at the moment is extremely busy, but she did have some time in the last few weeks to answer some questions by email.
The Millions: In the final pages of your book, you call the kind of torture you experienced in Evin prison “white” torture. You were not beaten or physically mutilated. But you were subject to inhumane threats, solitary confinement and psychological torture. Perhaps you can explain the concept of “white” torture better than I have done here. And maybe you could also explain whether or not you believe it should be considered as much a human rights abuse as the better-known, more medieval techniques.
Roxana Saberi: You explained white torture quite well. White torture does not leave any physical marks on the body but can devastate one’s mind and conscience. It often involves psychological pressures and threats; a combination of isolation, intimidation and manipulation; and the denial of a prisoner’s basic rights (such as access to attorneys and family members).
White torture can also rob prisoners of their self dignity and honor, especially when they are coerced to make statements – oftentimes false – about themselves or others. One aim of this use of white torture seems to be to make prisoners break so they will stop resisting in later stages of interrogation.
Many prisoners experience white torture, and they should not become complacent when they are not subjected to black, or physical, torture, (accounts of which are not uncommon in Iran.) Both involve the violation of human rights.
TM: At a couple of points in your book, your Iranian interrogators reference the violations of human rights at Guantanamo Bay. That your own democratic government has been responsible for abuses even worse than what you yourself suffered in Evin prison does not make your own suffering any less outrageous. But has the behavior of the U.S. in the past decade made your relatively new role as a spokesperson against human rights abuses in Iran more difficult?
RS: My captors tried to use Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo against me, as if attempting to justify their treatment of me (and other prisoners like me). I believe any time the United States does not reflect those principles of freedom and justice that others expect of it, this can be exploited by people like my captors who instead of correcting their own behavior, make excuses for it and gain more fuel to criticize America.
I can give you another example: One day, my father was called into the Tehran Revolutionary Court. An intelligence official there asked him something like, “Why do you keep telling the news media that your daughter is innocent? Don’t you know she has made a confession?”
My father said, “But we must see under what conditions she made it,” (implying that I was coerced into making a false confession).
The official replied, “We spoke to her in a completely friendly atmosphere. This isn’t America. We don’t waterboard here.”
I realize there have been some efforts made to address certain shortcomings of America’s human rights’ behaviors, and I hope that wherever human rights’ violations take place in the world, they will be addressed.
TM: You discuss your mother’s problems marrying your father, due to Japanese society’s allergy to relationships between its own nationals and foreigners. But you do not mention any viciously racist attitudes, either from your Iranian interrogators or from ordinary Iranians, directed at you for your Japanese heritage. Did you leave these details out or is this a sign of a more enlightened feature of Iranian society we in the West may not know so much about?
RS: I do not recall facing any racism in Iran because of my Japanese heritage, either from my captors or from ordinary Iranians. Many ordinary Iranians admire the Japanese people for their work ethic and discipline and see them as very warm and polite. It wasn’t uncommon for me to encounter Iranian taxi drivers who had lived and worked in Japan some years ago, and some of them spoke Japanese quite well. Some Iranian men had also, like my father, married Japanese women.
(Also, my mother’s parents’ opposition to her marrying my father because he was a foreigner seems to be less common in Japan today.)
TM: The motives of your interrogators remain, at the end of your book, unclear. Were they holding you up as an example to reformist journalists in Iran? Was your detention a kind of “saber-rattling” on the part of the Iranian government against the U.S?
RS: I cannot be sure of the reasons behind my arrest. They could have included the two you listed, as well as others.
After I recanted my false confession, my main interrogator essentially told me he knew I was not a spy (something that the deputy prosecutor implied to me – in private, of course). My captors may have wanted to use my false confession to intimidate Iranians advocating better relations with the West (at a time when President Obama was talking about more engagement with Iran, which many Iranian hardliners do not want). They may have also wanted my false confession to reinforce their claim that America had planted spies throughout Iran to bolster their argument for more controls on society and to silence criticism in the name of protecting national security.
Moreover, my captors had also demanded I spy for them, and they seemed truly resentful of the fact that I had interviewed many Iranians for a book that I wanted to publish abroad, beyond their censoring range.
TM: Throughout your book you maintain a tone of bewilderment. Having lived in Iran for six years prior to your arrest, what had you experienced in the country that made your experiences in prison so shocking?
RS: I knew some journalists and others who had been routinely questioned for a few hours about their work, then released. I believed if the authorities had questions about my work on the book I was writing at the time, which I went about quite openly to ensure them I had nothing to hide, they would do the same with me. I had also traveled in and out of the country many times during the six years I lived in Iran, and I had never been interrogated at the airport or had my passport revoked there, as the authorities had done with many others in the past.
I knew that in previous years, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry had begun detaining prominent dual-national activists and academics, but they had been primarily dealing with politically charged ideas or exchanges of intellectuals, writers and civil-society activists. I had known several others (including a few dual nationals) in Iran who had written books on the country without being arrested. I had never heard of someone being accused of using a book as a cover to spy on Iran.
I also did not realize that even though my captors eventually more or less acknowledged to me they knew from the start that I wasn’t a spy, that they would still accuse me of being one. Unfortunately, when the Iranian authorities want to fabricate charges and make a political case against someone, they do.
TM: Your arrest nearly coincided with President Barack Obama’s inauguration. You were reporting in Iran during the very long presidential election season we experienced in the U.S. How exactly is our new president perceived in Iran? That his name does not appear much in your book seems to be a sign that the average Iranian is relatively indifferent to his election. Am I wrong?
RS: He was inaugurated only 11 days before my arrest, so there was not a lot of time for me to understand Iranians’ reactions to his work as president. However, as I mentioned in the book, after he was elected, many ordinary Iranians believed that there was more hope for their country to have better relations with America (something that most Iranians want).
The views of those in power were mixed. As my main interrogator told me in one interrogation session, “America’s Democrats are more dangerous than Republicans,” and that even if the threat of a U.S. military attack on Iran appeared to have subsided under President Obama, Washington would intensify its “soft warfare” to try to overthrow the regime. My interrogator’s words reflected the view of many hard-line Iranian leaders who believe that better relations with America is either not possible or not desirable.
Later in the book, however, I mentioned that I began seeing on state-run TV (which I was allowed to watch after some weeks) reports suggesting that various Iranian officials were hinting at the possibility of better relations with the United States.
TM: Your lawyer Abdolsamad Khorramshahi is something of an elusive figure. At first, you seem suspicious of his motives. Do you now know what they were? And why did he refuse to work with another lawyer?
RS: I still cannot be sure of his motives, but he (in addition to the second lawyer I was stuck with) must have been under at least some pressure by the Iranian authorities to refrain from acting fully in my interests. (Khorramshahi kept telling me, “I’m under a lot of pressure, a lot of pressure,” without going into details.)
He told my father and me he refused to work with another lawyer because he couldn’t work with anyone else—that he would only work alone. This put me in a very difficult position, especially when I realized that he was not defending me as effectively and courageously as I wished.
TM: Has the guilt you experienced for making your forced confession abated? After reading about the demand of your interrogator that you smile and wave around your arms more during the confession, it is hard to believe that anyone could have taken it seriously.
RS: I still have some guilt for various statements I was forced to make and repeat on video (several times) under pressure. Some human rights’ activists and former political prisoners have told me not to be so hard on myself, that many others in my position have succumbed to the same pressures. What my captors coerced me to do in prison is part of the “white torture” whose effects leave psychological scars, not only for me but also for others who have gone through something similar. However, writing about my experiences in Between Two Worlds and talking about them have been helping me heal because I think it’s important that people know what happened to me is happening to so many others today.
TM: When you are let out of prison you describe a newfound celebrity within Iran. A shopkeeper sells “Roxana” scarves, like the blue one you wore in newspaper photographs. Your story seemed to plant at least one of the seeds for the Green Revolution that occurred not long after your release.
RS: I believe that the roots of the “Green Movement” (if we define it is as a movement for more democracy and human rights in Iran) were planted long before my detention. In fact, the movement for democracy in Iran dates back to more than 100 years ago.
The warmth that many Iranians showed me upon my release seems indicative of a widespread view in Iran that political prisoners and prisoners of conscience (who are punished simply because of their peaceful pursuit of basic human rights or for their beliefs) have been wrongly imprisoned. They are often respected and admired by many ordinary Iranians who see them as innocent victims punished for standing up for rights that are desired by a large part of the population.
TM: Of all the countries in the Middle East, Iran, in some ways, seems most poised to achieve something like a modern democracy. Its current authoritarian regime is balanced by some democratic features. And last year, we saw the bursting of hunger among Iranian youth for a dramatic change in government. This question may be impossible to answer, but is Iran now Czechoslovakia in 1989 or Hungary in 1956?
RS: As I mentioned above, the struggle for democracy in Iran is not new. There has been a movement for democracy taking place for more than one hundred years, though it has faced opposition from supporters of autocracy.
I believe the majority of Iranians want a more democratic government that respects human rights. Some want changes within the framework of the Islamic Republic; many want a whole new system of government.
One of the factors fueling the wish for a more democratic government is sheer demographics: Around two-thirds of the population is said to be under the age of 30. Many Iranians were either not alive at the time of the revolution or don’t remember it. Many Iranians are in touch with the outside world (through technology, travel, communications, etc.), are aware of universal human rights, and want their rights observed, too. Moreover, more and more women have been attending universities. In recent years, women have come to make up around 65 percent of university entrants. Many have moved from the small towns to big cities to attend college. There, they have been exposed to new ideas, and this has caused many of them to make new demands of their society and the regime.
How long it will take for these demands for democracy to be realized is impossible to predict, (and this also depends on many factors inside and outside the country), but I believe ultimately, they will prevail.